The Coming Arab Identity Crisis

The Arab Spring could renew Nasser's 60-year-old mission for pan-Arabism, but the movement would face new challenges today.

amazigh march7 p.jpg
An Amazigh child in Algeria / Reuters

Just after the 18-day uprising in Tahrir Square ousted President Hosni Mubarak, a Cairene businessman living in Hong Kong told me in rapturous excitement, "Now that we are freeing ourselves from dictators, all we need is to unify. One currency like the E.U., a common goal of economic development, and integrity for our Arab world."

He was not the first Arab idealist to envision pan-Arab unification as a legitimate goal. In 1960, at the height of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's Pan-Arabist, socialist movement, Egyptian musical icon Mohammed Abdel Wahab composed Watani al Akbar (in English, My Grand Nation), an ode to the idea of a united Arab super-state that would stretch from Morocco to Iraq. Many of the greatest singers of the Arab world came together on the same stage for the performance.

As independence movements pushed out European imperialists, Arabs were finally no longer second-class citizens in their own countries. Wahab's song for "a perfect unity" captured a goal that today, as democratic movements sweep the region, has returned to once again fill Arabs with hope and pride.

Just as Nasser's movement could not survive the political realities of his era, today's renewed pan-Arabism faces the same challenge it did in the 1960s: ethnic identity. If Arabs are to come together,-- this time not in a super-state but a union of regional economies -- they will first have to agree on who does and does not count as an Arab. That's a more complicated -- and potentially controversial -- question than outsiders might realize, but it is one that could challenge the Arab world, with or without a renewed pan-Arabism.

As problematic as Nasser's pan-Arabism was, its memory is still one of sentimentality and regret. Israel's bloody 1967 defeat of a unified Arab army and Egypt's virtual take-over of Syria under the banner of Nasserist pan-Arabism soured Arab opinions of a movement that could have elevated the region economically and politically.

The Arab world encompasses a vast array of ethnic, cultural, and religious cleavages and countless skin color gradations. In Nasser's time, pan-Arabists had trouble deciding how to either include or exclude Christian Arabs, Jewish Arabs, Amazighs (more often referred to by the pejorative term Berber), Kurds, and others into the movement for Arab advancement.

"A pan-Arabist would see diversity as fitna [sedition]," said Karim Mezran, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "An intelligent person wouldn't see diversity that way."

For Arab academics like Mezran, pan-Arabism has become more of a four-letter word than a legitimate aspiration of the Arab people.

"There were a lot of promises in [Nasser's] pan-Arabism that failed miserably," said Osama Abi-Mershed, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "The term is pejorative these days. ... Entry into Nasser's United Arab Republic thrust Yemen into a civil war, for example."

Still, there's some hope for regionalism. Earlier this month, Tunisia's newly elected President Moncef Marzouki announced a plan to reunify the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), an economic union that went defunct in 1994 over a dispute between members Algeria and Morocco over control of Western Sahara. Founded in 1956, the UMA included Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

Marzouki told the AFP that a new UMA would politically and economically integrate North Africa to better attract foreign investment and combat terrorism.

But can it work? Georgetown's Abi-Mershed expressed skepticism for the feasibility of a UMA renaissance, saying that non-democratic countries like Algeria would be wary of integration..

"Regimes in power since colonialism, nationalist regimes see regionalism as a threat to autocratic powers," he said. "These regional forces can dilute national authority. They aren't interested in gaining legitimacy by enlarging enfranchisement."

Although they feel it's unlikely, academics say regionalism could do great things for the Middle East.

"A movement for freedom and improvement should unite the Arab state," said Johns Hopkins' Mezran. "It's not the time for calls for racial and religious uniformity --unity should be in terms of values."

"The European Union," he said, "that's what the [Arab states] should follow. They should seek the progressive integration of market functions. Slowly, states should enter the union -- two states first, then four and five."

The political community agrees. "I see the UMA as an important vehicle to develop economies and combat terrorism," said Edward Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and a Lebanese-American. "We in the U.S. have short attention spans. If North Africa waits for help from the U.S. and Europe, they may be disappointed."

Although diversity has been a hurdle to Arab unity before, perhaps the rising democratic movements can help make it an asset. What the Arab rulers of previous generations saw as a threat to pan-Arabist identity, Mezran sees as an economic opportunity.

"Minorities are an enrichment because of their global ties and leanings. If you open up and incorporate minorities, they bring their contacts. Maronites [Christian Lebanese] have a lot of connections with Europe and the U.S." he pointed out. "What I know is if you exclude minorities, you close markets."

Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan -- Arab nations with some of the largest populations of the region's ethnic minorities -- are among the largest recipients of remittances in the world, according to the World Bank's most recent figures. In 2010, those four countries received $26.1 billion in remittances.

But the idea of incorporating minorities opens an big question for the Arab-majority regions of the Middle East and North Afica: who actually counts as an Arab? "I think the idea is pretty clear -- you speak Arabic and are of Arab descent, and you are recognized as Arab," Mezran said, later observing the gray areas in that argument. "I'm not fluent. I run into being chastised. But I've never been considered non-Arab."

If Arabism is more than just a language, then makes an Arab an Arab? Georgetown's Abi-Mershed offered a sort of formula for an Arab identity:

A recipe for Arabism

There are three dimensions:

A common language

A shared history, with shared cultural values, historical references, and lived context

A willingness to be defined as an Arab ... "which is where it gets problematic."

Since the end of colonialism, North Africa's Amazighs, who are believed to have lived in the region since long before the 7th century Arab invasion, have worked to reclaim their ethnic identity from Arabized homogeneity. The ancestral Amazigh language is Tamazight, but a century of intermingling and Arab dominance mean many now speak Arabic.

In a series of reforms over the past year, Moroccan King Mohammed VI made Tamazight an official language of Morocco. Still, Moroccan Amazigh leaders say they are polarized by the ethnocentricity of their nation's leaders.

Late last year, I spoke with Ahmed Adghirni, the leader of the Parti Démocratique Amazigh Marocain, who said that despite the new reforms, the nation's Amazighs are still politically and often economically disenfranchised. His party was banned in April 2008 when Moroccan courts cited a law forbidding racially or linguistically defined political organizations.

"The officialization of Tamazight isn't going to do anything to change the situation and lifestyle of Amazighs," Adghirni said. I am still participating in the development of Amazigh political representation, and consolidating their role in the February 20th protest movements."

Amazighists, as they call themselves, like Adghirni say they oppose Arabist movements such as the UMA.

Explaining his views on the rift between Amazighs and Arabs in North Africa, Ambassador Gabriel offered an example from his own Lebanese Christian community.

"Some Lebanese Christians don't call themselves Arabs, they say they are Phoenicians," Gabriel said, explaining that he is proud of his Arab and Lebanese roots, which he sees as parts of the same identity.

Abi-Mershed says that the Amazigh-Arab divide is to some extent a fabrication of French imperialists. "The Berber-Arab rift has become a legacy of colonialism. Colonialists distinguished between Berbers and Arabs because it suited their divide and rule policy."

Many genetic studies suggest that there is actually little difference between the genetic makeups of North African Amazighs and Arabs.

"When you say what is an Arab you say what is an Arab race," explained Abi-Mershed. "It's a 19th century construct that pretends to be scientific but is not. If you flip through history, there are identities, but there has been so much mixing that race only comes out in 19th century as pseudo-scientific category,"

There are some 2.2 million Amazighs in Europe, according to the most recent figures, and that doesn't include the large Amazigh populations that have settled in Boston and French-speaking Canada. Diaspora Moroccans, including Amazighs, contribute an average $7 billion in remittances every year, according to recent findings. They might feel a connection to Morocco, but probably not to the Arab world at large, given that pan-Arabism does little to move you if you do not identify as Arab.

Even more problematic than integrating Amazighs and Christian Arabs into a neo-Arabist movement is integrating Jewish Arabs -- a term that has been used rather infrequently since the 1948 founding of Israel.

Before 1948, Jewish Tunisian singer Habiba Msika was at the forefront of a Tunisian movement against French imperial rule.  Egyptian Leila Mourad -- perhaps a more central feature of the mainstream Arab musical-political canon -- was the Jewish Arab voice, and an official singer of, Nasser's 1952 revolution.

But Nasser's pan-Arabism, for which war against Israel was a defining feature and a rallying point, had no place for Jewish Arabs. Many Jews living in Egypt were coerced into leaving the country after 1948. According to some Arab Jews, the early Israeli government also worked to acculturate and Europeanize its Arab Jewish immigrants.

Perhaps the single most notable Arab Jew still thriving in the Arab world is Morocco's André Azoulay, an advisor to King Mohammed VI -- one of the only remaining Jewish Arab to serve in an Arab government. Azoulay is a native of Esssouira, a town that was once majority Jewish.

"I am an Arab. Arab-ness is not a religion. It's a culture, a language, and a community. Judaism is a spirituality," Azoulay said. "The European Arab and Muslim communities have a population of close to 10 million. Many are from the Maghreb -- and many are developing their own [business] network. The Jewish Arab community develops that same kind of community."

Azoulay said of the period after 1948, when Arabs and Jews seemed mutually exclusive, "Now that time is over. We are reclaiming our identity and our history."

Hesaid he believes that the UMA will successfully reunify. "What I know and what I think is having a union of the Arab Maghreb countries is so coherent. It's a win-win game for everybody. We have lost time, missed opportunities, missed so many rendezvous to make our growth larger by uniting our efforts and our wealth," he said. "I'm sure it will happen eventually."

For a new, democratic sort of pan-Arabism to ever happen, Arabs will have to reevaluate their perceptions of themselves as well as how their countries are governed.

"No major transnational movement would happen yet," said John Hopkins' Mezran. "The Arabs are inward looking. We have to wait for the states to develop values to project to the outside. Even with the revolution, The revolution is turned to Islamic movement."

Maybe Nasser's pan-Arabism would have to be reworked to succeed today, from an unwieldy Arab Republic to an economic cooperative like the European Union.

Or maybe pan-Arabism doesn't need reconfiguring. Maybe Nasser got it wrong.

"Pan-Arabism, which started long before Nasser's push for a United Arab Republic, was never supposed to be a political project," Mezran explained. "It should be primarily economic and cultural. In history, the Arab and Muslim world was unified for very short periods, but culturally and economically, it has almost always been united."